By Other Means


Time for some foreign policy change we can believe in.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s time to think legacy. For the last four years, President Obama has had plenty of reasons to pull his punches: at first, he was a new and inexperienced president, relatively unversed in how to make Congress and the executive branch work, and he mostly avoided going out on limbs. Then it was time to start campaigning again, making him risk-averse for a different reason.

But Obama eked out a narrow victory on Tuesday — narrow partly for reasons beyond his control (the ongoing global recession, for instance), but partly because the Democratic base was far less energized this time around. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama promised transformative politics, and millions of Americans believed he could deliver. After four years characterized mostly by centrism and half-measures, voters this year were distinctly less enthusiastic. This time around, no one expects transformation.

But paradoxically, President Obama is in many ways better positioned to deliver transformation now than he was in those heady days of early 2009. He’s not a newbie anymore: his first-term struggles provided important lessons on everything from how to work with Congress to how to staff and structure his White House team. And just as important, Obama doesn’t have to run for office again. He can — and should — devote his second term to building a legacy of which he can be proud.

Here are six foreign policy areas where he should focus his energies this time around.

1.      Break away from the "all terrorism all the time" approach to national security — and specifically, impose some strategic discipline on drone strikes.

Obama came into office in 2008 a critic of the expansive "global war on terror" paradigm, which seemed to promise limitless war against a limitless and undefined set of enemies. But despite early efforts to disaggregate the terrorist threat, replacing the GWOT with a seemingly narrower war on al Qaeda and its associates, the Obama administration has in many ways expanded the war on terror. America’s use of drone strikes and other targeted killings has increased dramatically, moving far beyond "hot battlefields" to Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and perhaps Mali and the Philippines as well. What’s more, strikes seem to be targeting an ever-widening group of people: we’re no longer just taking out terrorist masterminds who pose direct, imminent, and grave threats to the United States. Instead, we seem to have fallen into a common trap: we have a nifty tool, and we want to use it, so we’re using it more and more, for less and less reason. We’re going after suspects further and further down the terrorist food chain, who pose ever more attenuated threats.

As I’ve written in previous columns, these targeted killings raise serious rule of law concerns. They also raise serious strategic concerns. First, rule of law lapses have reputational costs, weakening our credibility with allies and enabling imitative behavior by unscrupulous regimes around the globe. Second, increasingly indiscriminate killings (or killings that appear indiscriminate) may well increase, rather than decrease, extremism and anti-American sentiment, increasing long-term security risks. Third, our fixation on taking out terrorists has real opportunity costs: every dollar and man-hour spent on hunting down mid-level al Qaeda sympathizers in Pakistan or Somalia is money and time that could be spent on dealing with other threats. Freed from the first-term need to pander to the electorate’s most paranoid fears, Obama should undertake a rigorous and pragmatic cost-benefit analysis of U.S. counterterrorism programs.

Terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States. As Greg Jaffe noted in the Washington Post last week, global terrorism has killed fewer Americans in the last decade than falling furniture and televisions. Worldwide, the number of deaths caused by terrorism has never exceeded 13,000 a year — and the number of deaths resulting from global terrorism was substantially higher in the early 1990s than it is today.

To use an Obama-esque phrase, "let me be clear": I’m not saying that Obama should ignore terrorism. Like global organized crime, it’s a very serious problem — and, in particular, the United States should continue to do everything possible to ensure that nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons stay out of the hands of terrorists, just as we seek to ensure that they stay out of the hands of rogue states. But it’s time to stop viewing most of the world through a counter-terrorism lens. In his second term, Obama has a unique opportunity to scale back targeted killings, increase their transparency, and redirect limited human and financial resources towards graver long-term security threats.

2.      Stop fixating on Iran.

Speaking of overblown threats, President Obama also has an important opportunity to ratchet down the hysteria level over Iran. The nuclear genie left its bottle a long time ago. Instead of trying fruitlessly to lure it back in, we’d do better to focus on managing the consequences of a nuclear Iran. It’s virtually inevitable that Iran will end up with a nuclear weapons capability, unless the United States or Israel takes direct military action. But a strike on Iran would, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, be catastrophic — probably a great deal more catastrophic than accepting a nuclear Iran. Obama should do everything possible to talk the Israelis off the ledge and should focus instead on creating incentives for Iran to be a responsible nuclear state. That’s not an entirely unrealistic goal: even Ahmadinejad is not as crazy as he seems, and Iran is likely to remain a rational actor — especially if the United States sets a good example by moving forward on our own pledges to reduce our nuclear arsenal.

3.      About those nukes…

As Joe Cirincione argued last week, Obama should make good on the promises he made in Prague in 2009. He needs to issue presidential guidance on the implementation of the 2010 Nuclear Policy Review, and continue reducing U.S. nuclear forces. He needs to reengage Russia on missile defense and further nuclear reductions, push for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and aggressively push forward on nuclear threat reduction programs to secure or destroy "loose nukes." If we want other states to refrain from the development and use of nuclear technologies, we need to show that we’re willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

4.      Remember the forgotten continents.

It chagrins me to say that George W. Bush probably did more for development in Africa than Barack Obama has done. That should change. President Obama needs to renew our focus on building ties, increasing trade and supporting development and governance reform in Africa. Latin America could also use a little love. As Michael Shifter has argued, a sensible Latin America policy would require the United States to get serious about immigration reform and be open to rethinking the "prohibitionist approach to and criminalization of drug consumption." Those are tough issues to tackle politically — but a second-term president is in a better position to take a few risks.

5.      Get serious about climate change and green energy.

Faced with congressional apathy and opposition, President Obama allowed his climate agenda to languish in his first term. But when it comes to significant long-term threats to the United States, climate change is way up there: the economic costs will be staggering, and climate change is also likely to cause instability and conflict in already vulnerable parts of the world. The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy may increase the national will to take climate change seriously: while no one can claim that Sandy was "caused" by climate change, most scientists agree that climate change is likely to usher in an era of ever more powerful storms and ever less predictable weather. That’s an opportunity to return climate change to the top of the national agenda, and Obama should seize it.

6.      Prepare for a world in which relative U.S. power is reduced.

Yes, I know we’re all supposed to pretend that America is still a rising power, but the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Our decline in power is both relative and absolute: in part, we’re less powerful simply because other states — many of them our allies and partners — are gaining strength and stepping into leadership roles. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Our power is also declining because of increasing global interconnectedness — the United States is no longer the sole architect of its own destiny. That’s not good or bad — it’s just a fact.

But we’re also declining because our domestic political process is broken, our regulatory process is broken, and we’ve stopped investing in the basics: education, infrastructure, health, research. I won’t recite all the usual statistics about diminishing life expectancy, higher infant and maternal mortality rates, and the appalling number of Americans who can’t even find their own country on a map, but the evidence is there, and it’s depressing.

Domestically, President Obama will have to struggle to turn things around on some of those issues — the Affordable Care Act was a decent start — but America’s decline also has implications for our foreign policy. In a world so interconnected — in which communication and transportation innovations have diminished the salience of state borders, new viruses (biological or cyber) can go global in days or weeks, and financial meltdowns can spread almost instantaneously — the United States needs to invest in a robust and equitable system of international laws and institutions. Strong and autonomous states don’t need international law as much as weak states…but we’re getting weaker, and no one’s autonomous anymore.

President Obama doesn’t need to win any more elections. If he wants to help ensure a stable and prosperous future for the United States, he should push the nation to abandon our delusions of permanent superiority. We still have disproportionate wealth and power, but we’re running out of time: we need to act now to create an international system that will still protect us as our power declines.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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